The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/The Ganga river System, the Symbol of Indian Culture: The Natural and Cultural Heritage

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Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges

The Ganges, above all rivers of India, … has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilisation and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man and the quest of the mind which has so occupied India’s thinkers, of the richness and fulfillment of life as well as its denial and renunciation, of ups and downs of growth and decay, of life and death” Jawaharlal Nehru, 1946.

"People of India would never find true peace until they could come into a harmonious relationship with and deep feelings of reverence to the Ganga river who is the cradle and identity of India's culture and civilisation since time immemorial"”. Rana P.B. Singh, 1996

Natural Heritage[edit]

The Ganga Basin: Uniqueness[edit]

The Ganga basin is by far the largest in India covering an area of 861,404 sq km within the country. As compared to the river Nile (6,650 km) or Amazon (6,500 km) the total length of the Ganga is only 2,525 km but it carries the highest quantity of sediment, (2.4 billion metric tons per year) which is greater than that carried by any other river of the world. The Ganga has also acquired a unique position among other mighty rivers of the world by possessing the largest delta, which was formed with deposition of these sediments through the ages. And it is these sediments that keep enlarging the delta and extending it in the direction of the sea.

The enormous sediment load of the Ganga may be attributed to the following factors: (1) The Himalayas, the birthplace of Ganga, is comparatively young in age, mostly made up of ever-unstable rocks with high erosion rate. (2) The size of the drainage basin is enormous with steep angle of elevation in the Himalayan region. (3) There are numerous mighty tributaries flowing through the basin and by their joint combing action soils from all over the basin are transported to the main stream. (4) Most part of the basin is thickly populated. Intense agricultural practices are being followed through ages and the forest area is greatly reduced, the natural contrivances for restraining soil erosion are almost non-existent in those agricultural belts. The digging of numerous irrigation canals in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar further aggravates this situation. About 13 million hectares of agricultural land are irrigated from the water of the Ganga and its tributaries. Such irrigation water, in turn, makes the soil vulnerable to erosion. Every year about 115,000 tonnes of precious fertilisers are washed away with the agricultural waste water and find their way into the Ganga, of which nitrogen is 88,600 tonnes, phosphorus 17,000 tonnes and potassium 9,200 tonnes. The water holding capacity of the Ganga and its tributaries has been reducing due to the high rate of siltation, resulting in devastating floods at regular intervals during the current century.

Population Distribution[edit]

The Ganga basin is the home of nearly 33 per cent (i.e.one third) of the total population of the country (1 billion in 2001). About 84 per cent of the people live in rural areas, whereas 18 per cent, i.e. 67 millions, are distributed over 730 towns and cities of the basin falling in nine states. The overall density of population is 430 persons/ per sq km compared to 305 for the whole of India. The variation of density of population in different parts of the basin is spectacular. The density of urban population is at least 20-40 times more than that of rural population. The highest density of rural population is found in the lower Ganga plains, e.g., in West Bengal with about 800 persons/ per sq km. It has reached to 27,000/ per sq km in the industrial belts of Hugli and 24 Parganas in West Bengal. The rural density falls off as one goes upstream, like Himachal Pradesh recording 110 persons/ per sq km. Among the 730 towns there are 105 large cities having more than 100,000 persons each, and they jointly share about 60 per cent of the total urban population in the basin. The growth rate of population in the Ganga basin is very high. During the span of sixty years (1941- 2001), the total population has tripled which is the root cause of numerous unresolved problems in this vast region.

Land Use Pattern[edit]

About 80 per cent population in the basin are farmers and farm labourers, they solely depend on agriculture for their subsistence. The Ganga basin is extensively cultivated. Some 509,994 sq km of land, which constitute 62.45 per cent of the total reporting area of the basin, have been categorised as cultivable. Non-arable land in the Ganga basin covers an area of 189,646 sq km which constitute some 23.2 per cent of the total reporting area of the basin. Over 5 per cent of the geographical area of the basin is used for construction of human habitation alone. The net sown area constitutes some 52.41 per cent. The gross sown area turns out to be 130 per cent of the net sown area, which indicates that a substantial portion of the net sown area is under double cropping.

On account of high intensity of cultivation in the rural sectors and high concentration of people and factories in towns and cities, a huge amount of organic and inorganic pollutants are being generated in the basin, major portion of which eventually find its way into the aquatic system. Hardly 14.3 per cent of the total basin is under forest cover. At the national level it may be mentioned that about 20 per cent of land is forested. Most of the forestland in the basin is severely degraded on account of over exploitation.


The Ganga Delta[edit]

The Ganga delta invites our special attention due to its unique position in geography. It is the largest river delta of the world with rich mangrove forests containing very rare and valuable species of plants and animals unparalleled among forest ecosystems. The Ganga delta extends for about 400 km from north to south and about 320 km from east to west. During the period of 12th to 16th centuries, the entire Bengal basin suffered a neotectonic movement, the earth's crust slowly tilted towards the east, as a result most of the water of the Ganga which once had been flowing through the course of Bhagirathi and Bidyadhari of West Bengal gradually shifted to the river Padma of Bangladesh. In West Bengal many former river channels have become clogged with mud and have ultimately become extinct, Bidyadhari being one such. The Hugli river is gradually becoming inactive. Due to reduction of flow of sweet water from the upper stretch, the salinity of the river has greatly increased, which adversely affects the flora and fauna of the Indian mangrove forest. There is a large-scale extinction of Sundari trees (Heritiera tomes) from which the name of Sundarban was derived. During the course of the last two centuries the Javan rhino, water buffalo, swamp deer and gharial (Indian crocodile) have totally disappeared from the Indian Sundarban.


Before the partition in 1947 the total mangrove forest area of Sundarban covering the southern part of the delta was over10,000 sq km, after partition more than 6,000 sq km has gone to Bangladesh and less than 4,000 sq km remain in West Bengal, in which the Tiger reserve area is over 2,585 sq km The core area of the reserve is 1,330 sq km which is largely protected as a National Park and no exploitation is allowed. The ecosystem of the Sundarban is very unstable; devastating floods and cyclones are quite frequent, everyday a part of the forest floor is washed with tidal water, for which it is also called tidal forest or littoral forest. The productivity of the mangrove ecosystem is extremely high, it is 27 tonnes/ ha, whereas the productivity of terrestrial ecosystem is 15 tonnes/ha and that of marine ecosystem is only 4 tonnes/ha.

The main livelihood of the people who live around the Sundarban are fishing, collection of honey, wax and leaf of Nipa froticans from interior of the forest and cultivation of a few salt tolerant crops. Most of the people live below poverty line. The problem of drinking water is very acute, people have to move long distances to collect drinking water, purity of which is not always guaranteed. The main crisis of the Ganga delta is due to the 3 to 4 folds increase of human population during the last fifty years. Heavy influx of population from Bangladesh is a continuous problem. Per capita resources are rapidly falling. On the other hand, the productivity of soil (agricultural crops) has substantially reduced due to increase of salinity and mismanagement of land.


Medicinal Plants of Marginal and Riparian Land[edit]

The marginal and riparian land of the Ganga is comprised of a large number of plant species, which are of ecological and economic importance. They play an important role in nutrient and water conservation and in checking soil erosion. With occasional exceptions, majority of the common medicinal plants is found to occur from Haridvar, U.P. to Diamond Harbour, West Bengal. Their distribution, however, greatly changes at high altitude above Haridvar and also at the saline, estuarine tract of the Ganga delta.


The Ganga-Shiwalik region is reputed to be a treasure house of herbal drugs. It provides approximately 450 different items of medicine. Since most of the people in a radius of 10 km from Haridvar have a good working knowledge of the medicinal plants, a number of them set up business for collection and sale of medicinal herbs. The annual purchase of medicinal herbs by big pharmacies ranges from Rs.2 to 4 millions. The increasing demand of medicinal herbs by pharmacies has led to their over exploitation resulting in a decrease in their annual yield collection. It is estimated that annual collection potential of Dashmool from the area has been reduced from 1200 quintals to 200 quintals in the last ten years. The grazing of animals has a similar effect in herb population. The piston effect of urban, industrial and farmland sprawl has greatly thinned the population of herbal plants in the Haridvar area. There is an urgent need to conserve this wealth on the basis of priority and suitability to the regional eco-systems.


Cultural Heritage[edit]

Dashashvamedh Ghat, Varanasi

Series of Sacred Towns[edit]

From the snow peaks of the source in the Himalaya to the meeting point in the Indian Ocean, 2,525 km long the Ganga (Ganges) river is perhaps the most sacred river body and also the most used and misused sacred shrine in the world. The name Ganga is manifested when the two main streams, the Bhagirathi and Alakananda, meet at Devaprayag, the point from where the Ganga enters into the belt of transition. Before reaching to this sacred spot altogether 108 river streams meet to the above two rivers, and also have the suffix of the name Ganga, e.g. Alakananda Ganga. The 108, commonly symbolised as cosmic number, i.e. 12 division of time, like months, or zodiacs, multiplied by 9 planets or division of space, like eight direction on the circuit and the centre.

The Ganga river herself is a symbol of Hindus' lifeworld and faith, that is why on auspicious occasions every perennial stream is cognised as the Ganga, and the great rivers of the different parts of India are perceived as the Ganga, viz. the Mandakini as the Ganga of the north, the Godavari of the east, the Kaveri of the south, and the Narmada of the west. This perceived idea is eulogised in mythologies, this process may be called as Gangaisation of Indian cultural space.


The Ganga provides specific power where one goes to make a direct contact with the great spirit which flows through all life-stream, visible and invisible. That is how the Ganga is sacred-holy-heritage, hence to be respected, protected, preserved and used properly. Beyond the economic and physical milieu reaches the realm of realising the true spiritual value of the power of the Ganga for what she really is: a source of powers; as natural place she has physical, mental, emotional and spiritual power (energy) beyond economic value. The stories of the Ganga would change, but the motherly river lives on. The Ganga is described as the soul of India. However, only a living mythology is not enough: its real understanding and preservation are the human needs and call of the time – a call of eco-justice.


There are notable heritage sites and centres of pilgrimages along the Ganga river. A national network of sacred places/heritage cities along the Ganga river might do to encourage an ecological conscience and preservative pride in Indian culture. Ritualistic pilgrimage to the historic and sacred sites along the Ganga is a spiritual form of recharging and recycling energy back to its original source. A short description of the heritage sites and cities are given below.

  1. Gomukh (30°55'N─79°07'E; 4207 m) and Gangotri. Though the Ganga rises in the Gangotri glacier (7010 m) on the southern slopes of the Himalaya range, its true source is at Gomukh, the giant ice cave about twenty two km beyond the small village. The ice cave, facing onto a tiny pool, rises over sixty metres beneath its shell, and standing just above is the peak of Shivlinga (5985m), golden grey, the colour of sea relics.
  2. Devaprayag (30°08'54"N─78°36'56"E; 500m; population 4,280 in 2001). This is the confluence site of the two main streams, viz. the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, where they become the Ganga. This is the last holy site symbolising confluence of two sacred rivers (Prayaga), one among the total fourteen in the source areas.
  3. Rishikesh (30° 07'21"N─78°19'10"E; 348 m; population 86,250 in 2001). This is the contact point site before the Ganga enters the plains. The riverbed clearly divides the sacred and profane landscapes and activities. On the one side simple dwellings, hotels and restaurants, and on the others side monasteries, hermitages and temples (mostly modern).
  4. Haridvar (29°57'24"N─78°10'23"E; 288m; population 220,500 in 2001). This is the real entrance point of the Ganga, and well known as one among the seven sacred abodes of Hinduism, and eulogised even in the Mahabharata, a 10th century BCE epic. Many sacred spots still active are associated with the great sages of the ancient past.
  5. Kankhal (29°12'44"N─78°01'30"E; 215 m; population 23,100 in 2001). Of course this site is famous for the antiquities of the Mahabharata period, there are many sacred spots related to the Jains and Buddhists. The original site was eroded by the Ganga, as early in the 9th century BCE, the town was re-settled later on. Epics and treatises of ancient period have vividly described this site.
  6. Soron (27°51'N─78°44'E; 23,050 persons in 2001) and Bithur are the archaeological sites containing remnants of medieval periods. These sites have not yet been projected on the map of heritage-tourism.
  7. Allahabad (25°26'N─81°53'E; 84 m; population 1,350,200 in 2001). This ancient city is eulogised as the king of all the holy places. Lying at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna, the city records many ancient sacred sites, hermitages, and sacred trees. The world famous bath festival, Kumbha, takes place here every twelve years, the last of which happened in 2001.
  8. Vindhyachal (25°09'45"N─82°34'18"E; 80m; population 16,700 in 2001). A suburb of the Mirzapur city, this is famous for the triangular shaped pilgrimage circuit demarcated by the three shrines of goddesses. The hilly environment, natural springs and the forest cover enrich the areas. There are many sacred ponds, monuments and holy spots.
  9. Chunar (25°09' 48"N─82°50' 30" E; 79m; population 34,400 in 2001). Lying at 28 km southwest of Varanasi, this town is famous for the fort of medieval period. This was the seat of a mythological sage Bhritahari whose samadhi (tomb) is still there. The fort records several reformations since 11th century to the British period. This is a good site of heritage-tourism.
  10. Varanasi (25°20'N─82°58' E; 77m; population 1,500,100 in 2001). Known as the holiest place and cultural capital of India, this city records unique artistic course of the Ganga with a splendour and beauty of 84 ghats; and over 3000 Hindu shrines, and several Buddhist, Jain, Sikh shrines. There are also over 1400 Muslim shrines. There are many pilgrimage circuits, representing archetypal and cosmic mandala.
  11. Patna (25°37' N─85° 10’E; 60m; population 1,602,500 in 2001). It was originally constructed in 480 BCE by the Magadhan king Ajatashatru. During 2nd and 4th century BCE the city was the capital of Magadh Empire. The name Patna refers to the Pataneshvari Devi ("Goddess of the gate"). Close to the city there exists some ancient sites also. The city is known for the birthplace of the 10th Sikh Guru, Govind Singh.
  12. Sultanganj (25°15'N─86°45'E; 30m; 4,020 in 2001). This is a famous place of pilgrimage, where a grand temple of Lord Shiva exists. The natural setting and the environment make it a unique site.
  13. Gangasagara (21°36'50"N─88°05'40"E). Lying at about 140 km south of Kolkata, this is the meeting point of the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal. On the occasion of summer and winter solstices, a grand bath festival takes place here. This was described as the mystical site in the Mahabharata that refers that during exile the five-brother Pandavas visited this place and took resort.

Of regional importance and locally considered as replicas, there are thousands of sacred sites and spots in the Ganga Basin recording wider acclaim of their antiquity, historical continuity, archetypal notions and the local traditions of pilgrimages, rituals and myths.


Festival: Sacred time & Temporal Site for Cultural Integration[edit]

Balaji Ghat, Varanasi

Varanasi is like a paradise, or better to say a wide spread jungle of festivities. There is a saying that in every week there are thirteen festivals in Varanasi. There is so much of varieties and so much of interrelatedness to local, regional, historical, mythological, celebratory, astronomy, astrology, oriented to faith-healing, social strata, .. and what not. The festive environment of Varanasi is a cosmic web of so many complex holes converging into wholeness. Some of them are really unique in terms of historical continuity of tradition and some of them possess universal meaning to understand the close relationship between man and nature. Most of these festivals and celebrations are associated to the ghats and the nearby old heritage zone. These festivals serve as the centre of cultural integration where irrespective of caste, creed and religions people take active part. Some of the most important are presented here (cf. Appendix 5, Hindu Festivals, 2002-2005).


Hindu Festivals[edit]

Makara Samkranti (always on 14th January). This marks the Hindu version of Winter Solstice (21 December) and is celebrated during the sacred moment of time associated with the Sun’s passage into the zodiac-house of Capricorn (Makara). This is the bathing festival and considered to be the dividing line in the cosmic rotation of the Sun god by his northerly retreat (uttarayana). This has reference in the Atharva veda, a 15th century BCE text. Holy bathing and offering the Ganga water to Sun, Shiva and Vishnu images are common. The popular customs of the day, however, include making sweets with sesame seeds; eating khichari, a staple food of rice cooked with 5 varieties of lentils and several vegetables (especially cauliflower and potato); both of these are the ancient tradition.


Maha Shivaratri (Phalguna, February-March). On the 14th of dark fortnight of Phalguna falls the marriage day of Lord Shiva. Varanasi is the Shiva’s abode, which is how this especially charming festival comes to be celebrated here. In all the Shiva temples, grand decorations (shringara) and celebrations are held, but the Vishvanatha (Golden), Vishvanatha in B.H.U., Adi Vishveshvara (Bansphatak), Mritunjaya (Dara Nagar), Trilochana and Kedareshvara temples are the most popular. The Vishvanatha and Mritunjaya temples are obviously attended by a million devout Hindus to have a glimpse of special shringara. During the festival a procession is taken out from the Mritunjaya to Vishvanatha temple. On the following 11th day of the light fortnight the yearly decoration of Vishvanatha temple takes place, called Amalaki or Rangabhari Ekadashi. Instead of merely sprinkling the Ganga water and offering flowers as is usual, pilgrims also sprinkle coloured red powder on the Shiva linga. This is the starting point and initiation of the Holi festival. On the occasion of Maha Shivaratri a musical assembly at Tulasi Ghat, called Dhrupada Mela, is organised.


Holi (Chaitra, March-April). Holi falls on the 1st dark fortnight of Chaitra. On the eve of Holi, the full moon night of Phalguna (Purnima), the festivities begin with the burning of the many neighbourhood Holika fires. The dawn of the day of Holi brings the saturnalia, the ritual reversals, and the social levelling, all together marking the springtime and welcoming the New Year. In the streets and in the courtyards of houses, people drench one another with buckets of coloured water and smear one another’s faces with wet colours. In the noontime the scene changes with bathing and a fresh change of clothes, followed by visits to friends where guests and hosts offer each other dry coloured powder and sweets. On this special day the important deities of Banaras are offered a variety of dry and wet colours.


Burhva Mangala (“The Old Tuesday”). After Holi, the first Tuesday that falls after at least five days is celebrated as the concluding festive day of the period of colourful Holi. Burhva Mangala stood for the subtle pleasures of Chaitra: a combination of the outdoors, moderate temperatures, and all-night festivity. Since the late 16th century it has been a tradition to play with dry colour on the decorated boats and bajaras (house-boats) accompanied by musicians and performers singing special seasonal folk songs known as kajari, along with lively folk performances. Mir Rustam Ali, the Governor of Banaras gave the festival a well-organised shape in 1735, and later on King Chet Singh also patronised it. Boats are decorated with flags and carpets, even with chandeliers. The riverfront from Asi to Panchaganga, becomes a floating musical festival. After 1922 this festival was no longer celebrated, but thanks to the spirit of citizens of Banaras it has been revived since 1994, and now the UP tourism is organising it at grand scale.


Chaitra Navaratri (Chaitra, March-April). This marks the beginning of the New Year, and is celebrated by the worship of goddess, called Gauri (“White Goddess”), for the first 9 nights of Chaitra light fortnight. On the first day many Hindu families perform the introductory rite by the installation of sacred pitchers in their home. During the 9 days, countless Hindu devotees perform the circuit of 9 shrines of Gauri. Special arati (‘ritual of offering oil lamps’) is performed in these shrines. Nearby these shrines devotional songs and group singings in the evening are the main attraction. A special fair is also held at Durgakund.


On the first day of Chaitra Navaratri to welcome the New Year, Vikrama Samvata, a celebration is also held at the Rajendraprasada Ghat. This is organised by the joint efforts of many religious trusts and social organisations in the form of cultural event in the evening. Since last two years the State Government of Uttar Pradesh is involved in the arrangement of various programmes that include musical performances, dances, rituals, religious discourses and seminar on these topics. The involvement of government officials makes the celebration a show at grand scale, however the spirit behind the festival is loosing its power.


Rama Navami (Chaitra, March-April). The last day of Chaitra Navaratri is celebrated as birthday of Lord Rama in most of the temples related to him. Rama Ghat is specially preferred for sacred bathing, followed by a visit and rituals at the nearby Rama temple (Rameshvara Shiva) where musical instruments (e.g. drums, bells, and conches) are played in tune with thousands of melodious voices. For the most part this is a family level festival and quite a large number of people celebrate in their home. The devout Hindus those performing special worship of goddesses during the nine nights (navaratri), pay visit to the temples of Maha Lakshmi (Lakshmi Kunda) or Siddheshvari Devi (near Sankatha Ghat). Since 1987 with a view to reviving the old tradition a procession of about twenty boats anchored and decorated, carrying scenes and performances based on the story of the Ramayana moves in the evening around 1630hrs. Known as Ramakatha Mandakini Shobhayatra this procession of floating boats starts at Asi Ghat and goes to Raj Ghat, while stopping at Rajendraprasad Ghat in the middle of the way. Along the ghats a great mass of people watch this.


Narasimha Lila (Vaishakha, April-May). This festival of scenic presentation is based on the life of Narasimha (“Man-Lion”), the 4th incarnation of Vishnu, and it started in early 18th century. This is held for a 6-day period, starting on the 10th of the light fortnight and concluded on the full moon day (Buddha Purnima), every late evening (2200-0030hr) at Prahalada Ghat. During the day Jhanki (‘scene’) are shown including Vishnu resting on the snake-bed in the Ocean of Milk (1st day), the fight between Vishnu’s Boar Form and the demon Hiranyaksha, and birth of great devout Prahalada (2), the education of Prahalada and punishments by his father (3), the incarnation of Narasimha who kills the demon Hiranyakashyapa (4), rest on the following day (5), and finally scene of the Ten Incarnations (Dasha Avataras) of Vishnu, and special arati (6).


Buddha Purnima (Vaishakha, April-May). The full moon day of Vaishakha marks the most sacred day for Buddhists because the birthday, day of enlightenment and the day of parinirvana of the Buddha all fall on the same day. This festival is celebrated with grandeur and gaiety at Sarnath, and is attended by a large mass of followers. A large fair is also held in Sarnath and relics of the Buddha are taken out in the procession for public viewing on this day. A day before Buddha Purnima, i.e. the 14th of Vaishakha, Hindus celebrate Nrisimha Chaturdashi, when special celebration takes place at Bade Ganesha (Lohatia) temple and at Prahalada Ghat in honour of Nrisimha (“the Man-Lion form of Vishnu”).


Ganga Dashahara (Jyeshtha, May-June). The 10th of the light fortnight of Jyeshtha is celebrated to remember the descent of the Ganga to the earth, and is considered her birthday. All along the ghats, a huge mass of devotees takes holy dips and pay visits to the Ganga shrine, especially at Dashasdhvamedha and Panchaganga ghats. The Ganga image riding on a crocodile made of clay, is floted in the river as a way to glimpse herin human form. Also in the morning some of the worshippers who have taken a special vow will cross the river in boats trailing long garlands of flowers to decorate the goddess-waters. Unmarried girls immerse their sacred dolls into the Ganga river. For the last last ten years, in the evening oil lamps burning the ghats from Dashashvamedha to Trilocana attracts dwellers and visitors for the beautiful atmosphere. In the evening at Rajendra Prasad Ghat cultural performances are also held. On the next day, called Nirjala (Bhimaseni) Ekadashi, thousands of lamps illuminate the Panchaganga Ghat in the evening.


Ratha Yatra (Ashadha, June-July). On the 7th day of light fortnight of Ashadha, a chariot procession festival (Ratha Yatra) that lasts for 3 days attracts a huge mass of visitors. This festival presents an abbreviated form of the world-famous Ratha Yatra of Puri (Orissa), started by the chief priest of Puri, Svami Brahamachari, who came to Varanasi in exile in 1790, and later died here in 1815. With the support of Beni Ram and Vishambhar Ram, the two prominent and rich citizens of the Bhonshala estate of Nagpur living in Banaras, the Svami built a temple honouring Jagannatha in 1802. A few year later in 1806 they started this festival. The procession is taken out of Jagannath Temple (near Asi Ghat) by carrying the images of Krishna, Balarama and Subhadra to Ratha Yatra Crossing on the Godaulia-Mahmoorganj Road. For the 3-day period, the roas is crowded with the people gathering from the neighbouring countryside. Many temporary shops adorn both sides of road and are known for special cookies like nan-khatai, a crisp and very soft biscuit.


Naga Panchami (Shravana, July-August). On the 5th of the light fortnight of Shravana, this festival represents one of the most ancient forms of serpent worship. On this day Naga (snake) images are painted or pasted on either side of the doorways of houses, and they are propitiated there with offerings of milk and puffed rice. A famous and ancient fair is held at Naga Kupa (ancient name Karkotaka Vapi). The chief attraction of the fair is wrestling, athletic bouts in the afternoon when the athletes of Banaras seem to pour emerge at the place. Old athletes cheer on their pupils and grand-pupils, who exhibit their skill in a large number of bouts till late in the evening.


Krishna Janmasthami (Bhadrapada, August-September). On the 8th day of the dark fortnight falls the birthday of Krishna (the 8th incarnation of Vishnu), which is celebrated in the Krishna related temples, most notably the Gopala Mandir, Chowkambha. Home altars throughout the city display elaborate scenes of Krishna with his cowherd and milkmaid friends, with tiny cattle and trees, with toys and swings for his pleasure. Distribution of special prasada (sweets offered to god) to as many visitors as possible is popular. Soon after midnight, when Krishna was born, visitors in thousands move from temple to temple and from house to house to offer their obeisance to the deity at these places. In most of the neighbourhood Hindu shrines and temples dols (decorative scenes of Krishna’s life) are installed.


Lolarka Chhata Mela (Bhadrapada, August-September). On the 6th the day of light fortnight, the great Sun festival is held at Lolarka Kunda. This annual fair attracts tens of thousands of Hindu villagers from the surrounding countryside. Devout Hindus, mostly women, start coming early in the morning. First they take a bath in the Ganga, followed by a ritual bath in the Lolarka water pool. The purpose of this festival is to give birth to sons. Couples without male progeny bathe in the water pool, and those who have succeeded in this effort bring their sons back for a celebratory bath. Devotees end the celebration by visiting, worshipping and performing rituals at the Krimi Kunda (Ravindrapuri), where the tomb of Saint Kina Rama is the centre of activities. All along the main street of Bhadaini are laid out displays by hawkers and merchants of bangles, cosmetics, and trinkets for women, as well as special articles necessary for the bathing ritual.


Durga Puja - Dashahara (Ashvina, September-October). The fall month of Ashvina begins with a dark fortnight for ancestral worship, pitri paksha. While it is observed widely in India periodtime has a special force in Kashi and two other holy cities, Allahabad and Gaya. As the light fortnight begins, the fall Navarati, “the Nine Nights”, of goddess Durga starts; this is called Durga Puja. Clay images of Durga in decorated pandals (canopies), ranging from 1 to 2.5m, with elaborate details are installed at over 500 places and are opened for public worship. Civic and religious organisations sponsor the construction of these clay images. On each of the 9-day period, devout Hindus visit the prescribed temple of Durga. For example on the 3rd day the Durga called Kushmanda at Durgakund, is visited. And, at the last day Mahalakshmi at Lakshmi Kunda is visited. On the 10th day of the fortnight, called Vijaya Dashami (or Dashahara), these images are taken out in procession to the Ganga and then the images are submerged into the Ganga. To participate in the procession and to watch the immersion are the unique experiences.


Rama Lila (Ashvina, September-October). The theatrical form of the life story of Rama as narrated in the Ramayana, is one of the oldest continuing performances in the city. This is performed always in the evenings. There are four types of periods of celebration, i.e. 7-day, 17-day, 22-day and 31-day; however the climax of all of them falls on the 10th of the light fortnight of Ashvina, when Lord Rama kills the demon Ravana. There held about 120 Rama Lilas at different places, organised by the voluntary organisations and religious trusts. The most famous among these is the Rama Lila at the Maharaja’s city of Ramanagar, which starts at the 14th light fortnight of Bhadrapada (August-September); the killing of demon Ravana is performed around 27th day. This Lila started in 1830 by King Udit Narayan Singh, is a form of environmental theatre where sites are scattered in the area around 6km long and 2km wide and permanent stages, buildings and settings are established. With the arrival of the Maharaja the performance starts with the ritual of arati (offering oil lamp) it ends by about 21.30hr. It is estimated that on the last day around 50,000 visitors take part. The other important sites where Rama Lilas are performed are at Asi Ghat, Khojwa, Shivpur and Chitrakut Talab.

Another important day of festivities is the Bharata Milapa (“Reunion with Bharata”), falling the very next day of Vijaya Dashami when Lord Rama meets his brother after returning from an exile of 14-year period. The Bharata Milapa at Nati Imali near the Sanskrit University usually attracts the largest crowd of any of the Kashi’s melas, reaching nearly half a million. By the climax of the period, the players actually become Lord Rama and Brother Bharata in the eyes of people, and seeing the play indeed is the auspicious viewing (darshana) of the divinities. The king of Kashi in royal flavour attends this festival.


The Nakkataiya (“Cutting the Nose”) scene refers to another episode of the Ramayana. This is the episode of the epic where the sister of Ravana tries to influence Lakshmana to marry her but instead Lakshman chops off her nose. On hearing this Ravana vows revenge against the brothers. This was one of reasons why Ravana abducted Sita. This held on the late 4th evening of the dark fortnight of Karttika. The Nakkataiya of Chetganj is celebrated at a grand scale and attracts over a hundred thousand visitors. It is famous for the long procession accompanied by lagas (models, scenes and clay images) with moving sideshows and marching elephants, camels and horses.


Dipavali / Divali (Karttika, October-November). On the next day after Hanuman Jayanti falls the festival of lamps and lights. In fact, Dipavali starts a day before Hanuman Jayanti, called Dhan Teras, which is famous for the display of metal utensils in shops and purchase by many visitors. The birthday of Dhanavantari, the father of Ayurveda (Indian system of medicine), is also celebrated by physicians on Dhan Teras. On the night of Dipavali every lane is decorated with rows of oil lamps, candles and electric bulbs. Today the local Bengali community performs Kali Puja in the late hours of the night. Clay images of Ganesha and Lakshmi are on sale, and most of people bring them home and replace the old ones on this occasion. Special design of clay and wooden toys are also sold only that evening.

The day after Dipavali is Annakuta (“the Mountain of Food”), associated with the legend of Krishna. Krishna is worshipped as Lord of Govardhana, the mountain he lifted up to protect the cowherd folk from the wrathful rains of Indra (king of the heaven). The temples of Gopala Mandir, Vishvanatha and Annapurna are the special places of decoration, celebration and offering of foodstuffs. At Gopala Mandir 56 types of bhogas (edible offerings to the God) are offered, and 3-day festival is performed there.

Krishna Lila and Naga Nathaiya (Karttika, October-November). Tulasi started Krishna Lila, the theatrical form of the life of Krishna, in the late 16th century at Tulasi Ghat. Since then this 2-week performance has continued. On the 14th evening of the dark fortnight the climax of the play arrives when a ring is placed on the nose of a king snake, called Naganathaiya. The scene shows Krishna jumping into the Yamuna infested by a large snake and subduing it. A strong stamen of Kadamba tree is planted on the bank of Ganga at Riwa/Tulasi Ghat and a small boy acting as Krishna jumps from the top of it into the Ganga, and soon after appears standing on the hood of a giant snake. The representation is so realistic that many believe that the aura of Krishna descends on the little boy on this occasion.


Yama Dvitiya (Karttika, October-November). On the next day of Annakuta, the main religious attention of the city shifts to Panchaganga Ghat, where for rest of the month of Karttika the activities continue. People provide oil lamps at the bank in the honour of Yama, the God of Death. The special scene of day is the making of images of Bhisma, the grandfather of the Five Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata, along the Rama Ghat, fashioned from a ton of silt and clay collected from the Ghat steps, covered with a final layer of mud, and painted with his clothes. He lies flat on his back and is pot-bellied. He is honoured here as a deity in the month of Karttika. Such images, though smaller in size, are also found at Asi, Kedara, Shitala, Panchaganga and at Trilochana ghats. On the 11th day of the light fortnight of Karttika, called Prabodhini Ekadashi, the final offering of the holy water, flowers, green grasses and other ritual items is made in the morning, and later the image is destroyed.


Surya Shashthi, Chhatha (Karttika, October-November). On the 5th day of the light fortnight, a 3-day festival of Sun worship starts. With respect to deep involvement, faith, and devotional strength, this festival is unparalleled. The 5th day starts with introductory rite, daylong fasting and singing devotional-folk songs. The 6th day is the day of complete fasting, even avoiding water. Today devout Hindus, mostly women, young and old, a million in number, offer the holy water of Ganga to the dawning Sun on the bank. Ladies carrying decorated small bamboo-baskets filled with flowers, fruits, cookies, sugarcane pieces, coconut and lightened oil lamp stand in the water and watch the sunset. On the next day (the 7th) early morning, around 0400hr, the family members, companions, friends and children all proceed in procession to the ghat and mostly occupy the same places where they were the previous evening. By offering holy water of the Ganga and all the ritual items (cookies, fruits, flowers, coconut, germinate chickpeas) to the rising Sun god, the festival comes to an end.


Karttika Purnima (Full moon day, October-November). This is the biggest bathing festival when in the morning, a million devout Hindus rush to one of the ghats for holy dip in the Ganga River. In the evening with myriad of lighted lamps floating on the river face and slowly moving in varied formations, the festival reaches its climax. Close to the Panchaganga Ghat two conical stone pillars with 108 sockets to hold the wicks are lighted on this evening. Hundreds of akashadipas (“sky lamps”) are hung each evening in little wicker baskets at the top of tall bamboo poles. During the period from 11th (Prabodhini Ekadeshi) to 15th (Purnima) day of the light fortnight of the Karttika a festival called Ganga Mahotsava is organised at the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. Its climax reached by offering oil lamps to the Ganga on the full-moon day. A revival of this evening festival called Deva Dipavali begun in 1985. During this period of five days musical performances are arranged in the evening, which are attended by a large mass of people. On about four dozens boats, scenes from the Ramayana are presented by devout Hindus and professional artists. One scene is presented on each boat, all arranged into a narrative sequence, starting at Asi Ghat and passing slowly to the Panchaganga Ghat. All along the ghats crowds of people gather to watch the scenes.


Many of the festivals are transformed into modern versions while others are on the verge of decay. Efforts have been made several times to revive them, but the impact of consumerism, individualism, the ever-increasing cost of living and the consequent lack of affordability by the common man have put serious obstacles in the way of such revivals and celebrations. Recently the UP Tourism and the Department of Culture, Govt of UP have made successful efforts to revive many of the festivals. However, they are not revived in a traditional manner but are conducted only so as to attract tourists and to get superficial popularity at the cost of putting on a big show that consumes a huge amount of public money.

Sikh Festivals[edit]

Of course the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) actually denounced both caste and the common apparatus of religion like pilgrimage, ritual bathing, priests and dietary laws. However, over the course of time all these have been established and accepted as the norm of Sikhism. Most of Sikhs also celebrate the major Hindu festivals, though they also have four main festivals. The first one, Sikh Jayanti, refers to the birth of Sikh religion and is celebrated on the occasion of Mesha Samkranti, always falling on the 14th of April when the sun leaves the house of Pisces and enters into the Aries. This is close to the Vernal Equinox (21 March). Guru Nanak Jayanti (birthday) is celebrated on the full moon day of the Karttika (November-December). Shahid Divas, is celebrated as the day of commemoration of Guru Tegh Bahabur’s death in 1675, when he was brought to Delhi by the Mughal authorities and was killed. The birthday of his son (Jayanti), Guru Govind Singh (1675-1708), who was the 10th and the last Guru, is celebrated as the day of origin of Khalsa, the brotherhood of all true Sikh believers.

Muslim Festivals[edit]

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The year is divided into 12 lunar months, which, being shorter than the solar, every year decreases in comparison to solar calendar. The major festivals are prescribed in the Holy Quran, and are further elaborated in the book of Hadiths. In span of time all the festivals were modified and slightly transformed to cope with the historical changes and cultural interaction. Remember that 35.7% of the total population of Varanasi, i.e. 1.5 million, is Muslim. Among the general list of forty festivals related to both the Muslim groups, Shia and Sunni, following are the most important with respect to participation, celebration and faith.

Muhurrum refers to the first Islamic month. The 10th day of this month is celebrated as mourning day commemorating the martyrdom of Ali and his two sons, Hasan and Hussain. This mourning period starts on the first day and ends on the 10th. A temporary house or hall (asur-khana) is made with pictorial decoration. On one side of this place stands the taziyas (taboots), structure made of wood covered with tinsel and profusely ornamented with costly costumes. The internationally known shehnai-maestro Bismillah Khan plays shehnai continuously for the whole night while marching with the procession.

Shabe-Barat is celebrated at the family level as to mark of the night of the Miraz when Mohammed paid a visit to the other world. All Muslims pay a visit to their ancestral burial ground and ask for the blessing of a good life. Special cookies and food items are prepared on that day. This is fully narrated in the book of Hadiths. The last Friday in the month of Ramadan (“month of fasting”) is celebrated as ‘Al-wida’ (good bye) to the period of fasting, though in actual practice the fasting is continued till the full moon.

Idul-Fitr (“the feast of the breaking the fast”), called Id, refers to the end of the period of fasting and the first day of the month of Shawwal. This is celebrated on a grand scale with shows, meetings, group feasts, and joie de vivre. This is the festival when Muslims invite their Hindu friends for group feasts. Idul-Zuha, or Bakr-Id, refers to the 10th day of Jill-hizza when Prophet Ibrahim was ordered to offer that thing which was the dearest to him and finally he had offered his son Ismael for sacrifice. In memory of this incident, the sacrifice of cattle is performed.

The Ghazi-miyan ka Mela (“the fair of Ghazi-miyan”) is a Muslim festival, but celebrated on the first Sunday of the Hindu month of Jyestha near the replica-tomb of Syed Salar Masud Ghazi, known as Ghazi-miyan, adjacent to the Bakaria Kund near the City Railway Station. Ghazi-miyan came with him as young soldier, and in 1033 was killed by the joint armies of Kalchuri King Gangeya Deva of Central India and King Suhaladeva of Bahraich. He died in Bahraich where on the same day a great fair takes place at his tomb. Persons belonging to the lower strata of both Hindus and Muslim society take part in it. Hindus and Muslims also share equally in the stalls and the shops.


Other Festivals: The Christian community celebrates the three major festivals, viz. Easter, Good Friday and Christmas. These respectively refer to Jesus’ resurrection, crucifixion, and birthday on the 24th night. The birthday of Buddha (Vaishakha, full moon day), and the day he preached his first sermon at Sarnath are the two major festivals of the Buddhists. Among the Jain festivals the notables are the birthday of Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara, on the 13th day of the light fortnight of Chaitra, and his death on the 15th day of the dark fortnight of Karttika, the Mukuta Saptami on the 7th day of the light fortnight of Shravana, Ratnatraya Vrat on the 14th day of the light fortnight of Bhadrapada, and Oli on the 6th day of the light fortnight of Ashvina.




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